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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) [29:59]
Concerto for Orchestra (1943) [38:20]
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Susanna Mälkki
rec. 30 May-1 June 2018 (Concerto), 27-31 May 2019 (Music), Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
BIS BIS-2378 SACD [69:09]

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is among the supreme masterpieces he composed during what I would regard as his full maturity. It equals works such as the impressive Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), the Third and Fourth String Quartets (1927 and 1928) and the late Sonata for Solo Violin (1945). These works show the composer at the most inspired and most assured, in full command of his art and craft.

Paul Sacher commissioned the piece for his Basel Chamber Orchestra. It was completed in 1936 and first performed in Basel in 1937. Sacher, a staunch champion of many contemporary composers, was not afraid to commission those who created the newest trends of the time. Bartók was one of them, and he too was not afraid to write an exacting work; it exploited the richness and the high technical level of the orchestra whose tenth anniversary the piece was to celebrate. The four clearly contrasted movements make enormous demands on its performers. The first movement is particularly striking. The music slowly rises from the depths of the ensemble and opens progressively in some kind of slow fugue until it reaches its climax punctuated by percussion before slowing, unwinding back to the opening mood. The pent-up energy accumulated during the first movement is released in the powerfully alert second movement. The percussion, piano included, plays a most important part since a few notes on the timpani, for example, trigger some theme often anchored on particular pivotal notes.

It is the third movement that is a real tour de force: a beautiful, delicate nocturne unfolding towards a climax before making its way back to the mysterious mood of the opening. Bartók composed a number of ‘night musics’ but this one is no doubt the finest and most gripping of them. The work is capped by an energetic, exuberant dance-like Finale whose climax restates an enriched version of the fugue theme before the strongly varied coda in which the percussion ushers the triumphant final cadence.

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is marvellous. It is not always easy to bring off, for the music is exacting, taxing and in need of much stamina on the players’ part – but the result is well worth the effort. For anecdote’s sake, the British composer John Longmire reports in his biography John Ireland: Portrait of a Friend (1969) that Ireland had been much impressed by Bartók’s piece: “The piece is really a ‘symphony’, any composer less modest than Bartók would have called it a ‘Symphony’.”

Serge Koussevitsky commissioned the Concerto for Orchestra and led Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first performance on 1st December 1944. It was the first substantial work Bartók composed during his exile in the United States, when his health and his morale were at a low ebb. The commission was most welcome artistically and financially. The result is a quite substantial though uneven piece of music. I for one have never been able to take it in unreservedly.

The first movement is not unlike that of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Its slow introduction unfolds from the depths of the orchestra along the similar pattern of a slow fugue launching then into the ensuing Allegro vivace. The second movement, Giuocco delle coppie (Play of couples), may be easily regarded as the Concerto’s Scherzo. There is much slight irony in the music whereas a rather solemn hymn acts as the trio of sorts.

There follows the weightiest movement of the entire work: the strongly expressive albeit troubled Elegy. The music – and its composer – cannot really forget that the war was going on. So, no night music here but a gripping oration for the many ones falling everywhere in the world in the hope of restoring peace once the turmoil has ended.

The next movement Intermezzo interrotto (interrupted) is to my mind the weakest. The music attempts to be jocular but only manages to sound lugubrious. It contains mocking trombone glissandos which bring to mind those heard in a movement from Kodaly’s Háry János (which depicts the battle with and the defeat of Napoleon). There also is a theme clearly reminiscent of Shostakovitch’s Seventh Symphony (some have likened it to Da geh’ich ins Maxim’s from Lehar’s Merry Widow – it is up to you to decide if there is any grain of truth in that). The Finale tries to put things straight again. It opens with resolute fanfares leading into dance-like gestures until the music gets glued in an inextricable, too-thickly scored mist tending to obscure the optimism that the composer obviously tried to achieve. Massive fanfares bring the Concerto to its emphatic rather than triumphant conclusion. If this may sound somewhat lukewarm to some, one should not forget that the composition of the Concerto for Orchestra proved extremely useful for Bartók. He later embarked on a handful of works including his masterly Sonata for Solo Violin.

People have their favourite versions of these two major works. Mine might be Ferenc Fricsay’s remarkable performances of the music that he must have felt deeply in his heart and soul. (There is a Deutsche Grammophon 1996 reissue in the Originals series of Fricsay conducting Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and RIAS-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, DG 4474432.) No matter. I have enjoyed to the full the readings by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki. The ensemble has all the technical qualities and the commitment needed to do this glorious music full justice. The performance of the masterly, marvellous Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is certainly one of the finest that I have heard. Recording and production are up to BIS’s high standards.

Hubert Culot

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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